New Senate bill may limit first amendment rights of Atlanta Citizens

One sponsor of HB160 Sen. Greg Kirk explains in an interview that protesters must apply for a permit ahead of time to avoid arrests and run ins with law enforcement. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

A new bill is sweeping through the Georgia Senate and is now making it’s way through the House of Representatives, but not without its fair share of controversy. Senate Bill 160 (SB 160), sponsored by Senator Tyler Harper, was passed in the Senate on Feb. 24

The bill along with several others, Senate bill 154 (SB 154), Senate Bill (SB 155), Senate bill (SB 164) and Senate  Bill 167 (SB 167) are all a part of a “Back to the badge” initiative designed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to show support to law enforcement. According to Sen. Greg Kirk, who is a sponsor for SB 160 and the primary sponsor of SB 154, the money generated from SB 167 will go to retirement funding for police officers.

“The men and women who put that badge on everyday are red, yellow, black, white and brown. We’ve got to show as a state we’re supportive of what they’re doing to maintain peace in our state,” Kirk said.

SB 160 proposes a revision of penalties for individuals who are convicted of aggravated assault or aggravated battery upon a “peace officer.” A peace officer is defined as an appointed officer to preserve the law and order, which can include sheriffs and other public law enforcement.

It also requires juveniles to be tried as adults if charged with aggravated assault with a firearm or aggravated battery against a public safety officer.

There is also a new felony that will be constructed through the bill for individuals who are tried for an offense of throwing bodily fluids at another individual regardless if the victim is an officer.

The most controversial part of the bill however is its regulation that seeks “to increase the penalty for obstructing highways, streets, sidewalks or other public passages to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature,” according to AJC. According to the article this particular part of the bill has raised questions on whether it curbs protesting right as stated by Sen. Vincent Fort.

Georgia State student and activist with the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Patricio Rojas, said that the bill impedes on the citizen’s first amendment rights.

It’s important to remember the first amendment not only protects freedom of speech, but freedom of association. This bill targets this,” Rojas said. “Popular protest is an important countervailing force in society that acts as a check on private power and state power. Without popular pressure to balance these out, we will lurch towards a more oppressive society.”  

Sen.Kirk said that those who wish to protest will not be denied the right as long as they are doing so lawfully, meaning that the protesters acquire a permit ahead of time so law enforcement is allotted enough times to prepare for the event by sectioning off road and sidewalks.

“It [SB 160] says lawful and the way that you’re lawful is if you get the permit. The reason being especially in Atlanta they need to make sure it’s patrolled, they need to put of barricades, and it depends on what route you’re going to talk,” Kirk said. “They need to know all that ahead of times so that they can plan for it. Local municipalities will continue to be able to give those permits for whoever protests.”

Although the bills target violence against law enforcement, Atlanta Police Department (APD) Public Affairs Officer, Liser Bender, said that there has not been an increase in violence against Atlanta law enforcement, but they do not object to bills that will keep their officers safe.

We work in partnership with our community and have not observed an increase in violence towards APD officers.”  

However according to Senator Kirk, there is a prevalent danger towards police officers in Georgia as a whole. He said last year nine policers were killed and thus this bill proposes a solution to reduce the number of police fatalities. Kirk said he takes the bill to heart because of the close relationships he had with some of the police officers that have passed.

“The reason for it is because we had nine police officers killed in the state of Georgia last year. We’re number four in the nation of deaths. Seven of the police officers were killed by gunfire. Three of those police officers were in my district” said Kirk.

The companion bill to SB 154, broadens those who are protected under law to first responders. According to Kirk, they have been experiencing increased violence as well.

“My senate bill deals with the civil side on assault and battery on first responders. We broadened it because we also had problems with EMT’s, firefighters and so forth being injured while they’re trying to do their job,” Kirk said.